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Best “New” Seafood: Westgate Room. In another remade hotel restaurant, an airier, less-formal ground-floor (and more down-to-earth) space replaces the stuffy old Le Fontainebleau. Beautiful, with superb service, it still feels luxe, calme, et volupté, but prices are lower while culinary standards remain exalted. Normandy-born chef Fabrice Hardel, who grew up savoring seafood, is a marvel at preparing it. (And, psst, a little molecular magic provides surprise thrills.) Stay away from old-menu shibboleths, go for the fresh-fish creations.

Best New Vacation-on-a-Plate: Vela. The restaurant’s name means “sail,” and at the new Bayfront Hilton, you feel as if you’re on a luxury yacht, relaxing into a mini-vacation of ease and indulgence. The farm-fresh, seasonal food is as delightful as the waterfront view. Gulf prawns in escabeche were stunningly sweet and tender, and Meyer beef carpaccio had my whole table moaning like Meg Ryan (but quietly). Prix-fixe international “exploration” dinners are treats (for the chef, too — you can taste it), while the appetizer array and affordable wine flights invite grazing dinners. Best yet is the spirit of generosity. They really aim to please.

Best New Italian: Bice. The local offshoot of a hugely successful Milan-based international chain looks slick and modern, but its kitchen follows Italy’s old traditions of artisanal ingredients and farm-fresh produce, “slow food” from the country that invented it. Want to taste some of the foodstuffs you’ve heard Mario Batali rave about? There’s a cheese-and-salumi bar (its offerings available at tables, too), house-made breads and pastas, exquisite not-too-sweet desserts (e.g., a superb panna cotta). And on this huge, inviting menu, most dishes are under $20! Service is warm but not stifling, intent on providing maximum pleasure. Runner-up: Operacaffe. This welcome throwback to the pre–convention center Gaslamp (when Italian restaurants were small and affordable) rolls back the cost and the tension. It offers unselfconscious Florentine home-style cooking, simple and sensual and delizioso, in a hospitable, laid-back atmosphere. “This one is just for San Diegans — no tourists!” say the owners.

Best New Fusion: Jai. Aah, finally, this is what fusion should be! This Wolfgang Puck spin-off is hidden amidst lovely tall trees on the UCSD campus, a gleaming, comfortable modern restaurant instead of a witch’s cottage, with excellent service. Chef Yoshinori Kojima does benign witchcraft of his own with precise, masterful dishes, such as an outstanding tempura soft-shell crab with tender meat, and a miso-glazed butterfish, its sweet flesh robed in a silken sauce. Food-pundits say that fusion’s about to go out of style (as it should, given how screwed-up it often is); even so, Jai deserves to survive as a living monument to the genre at its finest.

Best New “Have It Your Way” Hangout: Cucina Urbana. Restaurateur Tracy Borkum killed her upscale Laurel and replaced it with this rackety, informal Italian-inspired eatery offering creative and shareable nibbles, for grazing or gobbling, eating (and spending) a little or a lot — at tables, at the bar, at a huge communal table favored by singletons. An attached wine shop offers all bottles at $7 corkage over retail price. The primary flaw is the price of success: how can you hang out at a hangout where reservations and even bar-seats are horribly hard to score?

Best Greek: Apollonia Greek Bistro. In a town filled with Greek restaurants of highly variable quality, Apollonia has the most complete and nearest-to-authentic menu (including seafood — remember, Greece consists of islands!). The greaseless moussaka is exceptional; other joys include wonderful taramasalata (cod roe mousse) and lush stuffed eggplant, imam bayaldi.

Best New Upscale Mexican: El Vitral. The creative mainland Mexican nueva cocina is wildly uneven here dish to dish — plus they foolishly withhold their four fabulous salsas from the table, providing them only with certain entrées. But when it’s good, it’s very good: try the rich sopa de elotes (corn soup), handmade quesadillas (totally fabuloso), scallops, duck mini-enchiladas, cochinita pibil (Mayan-style “pulled pork”), duck fettuccine with mole, and above all, a dessert of churros with coconut sauce. The “Smokin’ Tippler” spicy margarita makes a mighty tipple, and dining on the patio with its toes on Petco is fun.

Best New Inexpensive Mexican: Cantina Mayahuel. In a tiny but attractive space, the short menu is authentically mainland, a limited selection of soft “street tacos” plus salads, “bowls,” and weekly specials, including Friday night’s extraordinary chicken moles — a choice of house-made poblano or imported Oaxacan black mole or half and half. Margaritas are big and cheap ($5); food prices top out at ten bucks.

Best New Middle Eastern: Mystic Grill and Bakery. Still looks like the cheap pizza joint it used to be. Still serves cheap pizza. (Don’t go there.) But the Jordanian chefs are proud professionals. If you’ve given up on felafel and kibbe, try again here. They’ll blow your mind. Top ingredients (halal Prime beef, fresh baby chickens) and skilled cooking “from scratch” set this one well above the norm. Don’t skip the house-made, not-oversweet desserts, including three variations on baklava.

Best Happy Hour: Candelas, Coronado. The best happy hours don’t just drown your troubles, they carry you away from them. At Candelas, a generous menu of exquisite, sometimes exotic upscale-Mexican creative appetizers at half-price, paired with half-price drinks in a stunning bay-view location, makes this the ultimate happy-hour heaven to wash all your blues away. Runner-up: Puerto La Boca. Argentina’s dinner hour starts at 11:00 p.m., so the cuisine includes a rich array of tasty “teatime” tapas to enjoy along with South American wines. Puerto La Boca isn’t a splashy bar scene but an instant escape to some artists’ café in Buenos Aires, a sophisticated epicurean experience at deeply discounted prices.

Best New Gastropub: All American Grill. In a hipper location, this huge pub might challenge crowded Cucina Urbana (not to mention Jayne’s Gastropub, et al.) as a casual foodie hangout. But it’s way off the trodden gastronomy trail that runs from Mission Hills to Kensington. Down the cliff in Route 8 mall country, it occupies a former Trophy’s in Hazard Center. (Yes, the TVs remain, usually muted but springing to life during Sunday games.) Nonetheless, talented chef Timothy Au is transforming pub grub into genuinely good grub, using fresh local ingredients and a wood-fired grill to make creative mini-pizzas, classy burgers, gorgeous roasted Carlsbad mussels, steaks, ribs, et al. And creative cocktails (with juices, not cloying commercial mixes) cost about the same as a glass of wine.

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Comments

millerowski Dec. 30, 2009 @ 9:32 p.m.

While I appreciate this year-end summary/analysis, I am disappointed to see Cantina Mayahuel named the "best new inexpensive Mexican" restaurant.

First, it is not inexpensive. Two tacos (4.50 each) plus a side of black beans and rice (3.50) will cost you $12.50 before tax and tip. Bowls are $11, as are salads. And that's that! Aside from chips, guac, and salsa and one daily special (Wednesday's special of grilled halibut weighs in at $20), that's the menu. (Ms. Wise mentioned the Friday special of mole, but I haven't had the chance to try it, and probably won't given my experiences there to date.)

The formula is simple: you can have steak, chicken, mahi, or shrimp in your taco, salad, or bowl. Neither the mahi nor the shrimp were flavorful on the two occasions I dined there. The beef was over-salted and dry. (I didn't try the chicken.)

There are about 60 tequilas, and the cost of a shot varies from 4.50 to 18.00. For a margarita, choose your fave tequila and add $1.50. The cheapest margarita (4.50 + $1.50) costs $6--not $5, as the article claims. (Ok, it's only a buck difference, but that's a margarita with the cheapest ingredients.)

There is a nice patio--but not-so-nice in this weather. Seating inside is at the bar and at high tables with bar stools--not exactly comfy.

The staff is friendly, and the service, fine. But, as several yelpers have written, this place is better for drinking than for dining. I would hope that there is a better "New" Mexican joint in town. I'll stick with my old favorites.

Let's see what 2010 brings!

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ncboy Dec. 31, 2009 @ 12:38 p.m.

I wouldn't quibble about one restaurant in such an expansive year end review. I agree with most of ms. wise's decisions and putting this year-end review togeather must have been huge feat! i just wish i was in San Diego at the time to try the closed restaurants she pined about, they sounded wonderful. here's to a great 2010 and more great reviews.

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millerowski Dec. 31, 2009 @ 7:03 p.m.

To: ncboy (comment #2 above):

I was not "quibbling." I was adding a different perspective regarding a restaurant. Ms. Wise's "Top Restaurants of 2009" list will be very influential, and, as I said in my preface to comment #1 above, I appreciate the overall article (and, further, I am a fan of Ms. Wise's reviews).

The point is: anyone who is going to spend X amount of hard-earned dollars benefits from knowing in advance what she/he is going to get for those dollars. Mayahuel has potential, but the menu is formulaic and the ingredients--IMHO, not prepared very well: tasteless shrimp, salty and dry "steak", etc.

This was Wise's nominee for "Best Inexpensive Mexican." My point is that it is not all that inexpensive, and it is not very good. So I just want to warn potential diners...they can check yelp.com or chowhound.com and find comments similar to mine.

However, Bravo to La Wise! And best wishes for 2010!

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Naomi Wise Jan. 1, 2010 @ 7:26 p.m.

First -- two important corrections.

  1. While Argentine tapas definitely made my "boca" very "alegre," the name of the Argentine tapas place that made a happy-happy hour is Puerto La Boca (not Puerto Alegre). It's at 2060 India St., (at Hawthorn), Little Italy, 619-234-4900; www.puertolaboca.us. And I'll repeat about it -- if you're looking for a loud bar scene with shrieking blondes, etc., this is not the place. Just great food, yummy wines, and a non-tourist South American atmosphere.

  2. Sorry to say that after coming back from the dead, Chilango's expired again. Damn, damn, damn! (By the way, the obits list was truly incomplete. Saw 5 more deaders en route to the Gaslamp two days ago. Mainly no great losses on that route.)

Okay, now -- Cantina Mayahuel. I ate there in April. Obviously, they've raised prices since then. I didn't see how they could survive on their low prices, and apparently, they realized the same. I swear to you, my Margaritas cost $5 each -- I had three of them, I should know! (And was still able to walk, talk, and then take notes perfectly well, so they may have been a bit weak, if delicioso.) All I ate were the $10 specials, as I'm not real excited about tacos (as a 10-year resident of scenic central Golden Hill, I don't need no stinkin' tacos -- they were about all you could get here before the blessed Luigi's Pizza came to the rescue.) But I am always excited about serious mole saucss, and was very impressed. But yeah, millerowski, could be everything has gone up (prices) or down (food quality) -- eight months is a long time in the life of a barebones restaurant struggling to survive.

Happy new year everyone. May this decade be better than the last one -- Peace on Earth, clean water to the third world, respect and freedom for women everywhere and good health care to everyone. NW

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millerowski Jan. 8, 2010 @ 5:18 p.m.

Regarding the year of the dead: Nicolosi's (for years on El Cajon and lately in Mission Valley near SDSU) died and came back to life! Apparently the nephews revived it! Great news for those of us who grew up on Nicolosi's pizza, torpedoes (what great house-made rolls!) and pasta. Well, it's great news for everyone who loves a down-to-earth red sauce joint.

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Jay Allen Sanford Jan. 8, 2010 @ 6:55 p.m.

Viva la Nicolosi's! Best sandwiches I ever ate in SD - glad to hear they're back. They used to custom bake a white sauce eggplant and spinach pizza for me that I still dream about some nights....maybe that's why I keep finding bite marks in the coaster on my bedstand...

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